Obituary: A life on the left: Jim Mortimer (1921-2013)

08 May 2013 By Tom Sibley Jim Mortimer, who has died aged 92, was a leading figure in the labour movement over 60 years.

8 May 2013| News

08 May 2013

By Tom Sibley

Jim Mortimer, who has died aged 92, was a leading figure in the labour movement over 60 years.

He was a Marxist and activist who campaigned, wrote and spoke on a wide range of issues and challenges facing working people and progressive movements both in Britain and internationally.

His autobiography A Life On The Left captures the essence and spirit of a comrade totally dedicated to the socialist cause.

Almost to the end he remained a union activist travelling across London with his wife Pat to attend meetings of his branch and the Unite Broad Left.

An only son, Jim was born into a large working-class family in Bradford. Some of his extended family were union and Independent Labour Party activists. His mother was a textile worker from the age of 12.

In Jim’s early teenage years the family moved to Portsmouth. He left school at 15 and was apprenticed as a fitter in the local naval dockyard.

Fearing victimisation for his support of arms for republican Spain, knowing that apprentices had been sacked in the Clyde dockyards for such activities, Jim went to London in 1937.

He moved from the shop floor to the drawing office in 1942 while working at Lagondas, which was engaged in war production.

While there he joined the Young Communist League which he left in 1945 to rejoin the Labour Party to which his union, the Association of Engineering & Shipbuilding Draughts­men (AESD), had recently affiliated.

In 1946 Jim won a TUC scholarship to Ruskin, the trade union college.

Here he enjoyed two happy years immersed in study and debate.

Jim was headhunted by the then head of the TUC economic department George Woodcock, later to become TUC general secretary.

In 1948 Jim became a national official of the AESD. He soon emerged as the union’s main speaker on wages policy and general economic issues. During the 1950s, the union moved steadily to the left.

The election of a Labour government in 1964 was greeted with enthusiasm by most union activists.

Once again, as in the years of the Attlee government, Labour ministers resorted to wage restraint policies as inflation grew and the balance of trade deteriorated.

This left Jim in a difficult position. The Draughtsmens’ union conference and executive committee, of which he was a leading member, firmly opposed wage restraint. Anti-government feeling was reflected in the Draughtsmen’s and Allied Technicians’ Association by the growth of ultra-left tendencies more intent on exposing Labour’s limitations than in campaigning to unite the movement behind demands for a change in government policy.

Jim found his position increasingly untenable and in 1969, to the surprise of many of his political allies, Jim accepted Barbara Castle’s invitation to serve on the National Board for Prices and Incomes.

While he had been a consistent opponent of attempts by both Tory and Labour governments to restrict trade union freedoms and collective bargaining, he felt obliged to assist a Labour government elected with overwhelming trade union support, promising to advance workers’ interests.

But it ended in tears as incomes policy quickly resulted in reductions in real wages followed by electoral disaster for Labour in 1970.

Jim was appointed in the summer of 1974 as the first chairman of the Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas).

Attracted by that organisation’s statutory duty to promote collective bargaining, Jim had high hopes that Acas could make a real difference.

His work as chairman was widely admired by both unions and employers.

But as with the Prices and Incomes Board, he was to be disappointed. Labour ministers stood aside and allowed the courts to thwart Acas’s attempts to secure union representation at Grunwicks following a year-long strike of the mainly Asian female workforce.

In 1982 Jim became general secretary of the Labour Party.

But following Michael Foot’s resignation as party leader in 1983, Jim’s contribution was no longer valued and he was increasingly sidelined.

The highlight of this period was the 1984-5 miners’ strike during which Jim spoke on behalf of the Labour Party at many solidarity rallies while the new leader Neil Kinnock failed to address a single one.

In appreciation of his unstinting support for the miners’ struggle the NUM later made Jim an honorary member.

After retirement Jim was active in many progressive causes. He made a highly valued contribution to the work of the Institute of Employment Rights.

To his 91st year Jim was a regular attender as a branch delegate to the Kingston Trades Council and the Kingston Constituency Labour Party.

He was a stalwart, along with his wife the indomitable Pat, of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union left as it battled to unite the union against the machinations of general secretary Roger Lyons, a new Labour catspaw, and for the progressive traditions of the constituent unions – the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs and the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Section.

In his appreciation of his comrades’ efforts Jim was always generous and encouraging.

His many acts of personal kindness were exemplified by the help he gave to Bert Ramelson in the early 1990s after a stroke had badly affected his ability to read.

Jim spent hours every week reading to Bert and discussing with him the work they were studying together.

Jim was a working-class intellectual of the highest order and a trade union leader and activist of great integrity and total commitment. His writings were voluminous and profound.

Jim was truly a man of the left. His contribution will endure long after his critics in new Labour are forgotten.

His understanding and exposition of the links between trade unionism, collectivism and democracy were second to none as was the strength of his belief that if humankind is to advance then socialism, based on common ownership and democratic participation, is the next essential stage.

Originally published by the Morning Star